Homeless sue governor over funding freeze

Class action lawsuit filed after monthly aid curbed

$5 million deficit is projected

Dec. 15 application cutoff affects childless, disabled

January 24, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

A homeless advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit against the governor and the head of the Maryland Department of Human Resources yesterday for blocking new applicants to a state program that would provide $185 a month to about 8,300 indigent people, including many who are homeless.

The lawsuit, which lists Gustav Ketchersid as the plaintiff, seeks a temporary restraining order on the freeze. The case is expected to be heard in Baltimore Circuit Court as early as Thursday.

At issue is $5 million that is needed above the current funding level for the state's Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program. The $24-million-a-year program serves 11,000 to 13,000 childless and disabled adults each year, many of them unemployed men like Ketchersid.

TEMHA payments of $185 a month - which amounts to $2,220 a person a year - will not be made to anyone who applied on or after Dec. 15, according to state officials. An average 1,300 people are determined to be eligible for TEMHA funds each month.

Ketchersid, 46, said yesterday that it doesn't make sense to withhold money from poor and homeless people at this time of year - when home heating bills escalate and brutally cold temperatures can be fatal to those living outside.

"Everybody, basically in general, is dumping on the homeless and the poor," Ketchersid said. "It doesn't make any difference if you're a single male or a mother with children.

"If you want to get homeless people and addicts off of the streets, you have to appropriate money for places for them to go. This is the worst time for the money to be cut off. Instead of cutting TEMHA off [altogether], they should have cut $5 or $10 from those getting it now and kept it going," he said.

Ketchersid is being represented by the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a nonprofit, anti-poverty organization that provides free legal services to the needy and working poor.

J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said his organization objects to the freeze in new applicants for three reasons, including that the measure "violates constitutional equal protection" and "is just arbitrary and capricious."

Additionally, Sabonis said, the $5 million is small compared to the state's expected $200 million surplus for the current fiscal year. Sabonis said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to include $324 million in deficiency appropriations for programs facing funding shortfalls this year, but the TEMHA program - among those facing a shortage - wasn't in that group.

"It looks like the state deficit begins a year earlier if you're poor or disabled," Sabonis said.

Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, acknowledged yesterday that the state's top politician was aware of the lawsuit.

"The paperwork has been received by the governor's legal aid office and is currently under review," DeLeaver said. "Governor Ehrlich shares the concerns of those who filed the lawsuit and has significant planning under way with respect to the subject. He is diligently working with [Department of Human Services] Secretary [Christopher J.] McCabe and will publicly unveil plans in the weeks to come."

DeLeaver declined to be more specific about Ehrlich's plans.

Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, called the issue a tough one.

"We have received this [lawsuit] and are aware of the concerns that the prospective TEMHA recipients have," West said. "We still want people to come to us for services because we will provide some benefits still, like food stamps, medical assistance, and we also are going to help them as they pursue their SSI disability claims.

"We realize the amount is significant to the recipients. The state is experiencing a significant budget crunch, and this program was projected to run a $5 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year. We do want to assure recipients that this program is still here, it is still in operation and the benefits to the recipients will resume on July 1," West said.

West said officials considered the cold weather when making their decision to freeze the funds.

"No time is a good time to have to take an action like this," West said. "We're asking other community resources to try to help out wherever possible. We realize that there are some agencies that have clothing drives that can help people in this weather. When we talk about social services, everybody looks at the state because of course we are usually the last resort, but there are other resorts as well."

Ketchersid, a diabetic who has been homeless since 2001, said he worked regularly until he was laid off from a prominent Baltimore company. "With my age and my disabilities, it's getting harder and harder to work a job and get a job in what I've been trained in, being a maintenance driver."

He applied for the TEMHA funds Thursday and isn't sure what he'll do now that the state has frozen funding.

"I'll try to survive as best I can, continue doing what I'm doing," Ketchersid said while sitting in the Homeless Persons Representation Project offices on Cathedral Street, sipping a cup of coffee. "When I'm able to, I'll go to Daily Bread for a hot meal, go to a shelter when it gets real cold."

Ketchersid, who hopes to get a chance to speak in court next week, said he never planned to become an advocate and lead a fight against state budget cuts.

"After 10 years of seeing services get cut out and cut out for the homeless and the poor ... somebody had to take a stand and say, `You can't keep doing this,'" he said.

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